The DfE recently announced a pilot to trial a revised set of Early Learning Goals (ELGs) due to start in September 2018 across 25 schools.

ELGs are not new and are currently used to measure a child’s readiness to access the key stage 1 curriculum. Whilst the percentage of children achieving them has risen year on year, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and their better off peers has not changed and remains stubbornly at around 17%.[1]It is obviously a good thing to try and address this gap and the pilot is also aiming to improve children’s speech and language and reduce teacher workload in the process.

At last a pilot to reduce the workload of teachers – so they have more time to spend with the children, who could possibly argue with that? Well when it's put like that it does sound attractive. But there is no direct link between changing what you assess and how you improve language, nor is there a clear link in how you reduce workload by changing the goals.

If you view the source of the reason behind the proposed changes they are primarily drawn from the Primary Assessment Questionnaire, which cannot and should not be taken as a reflection of the views of the early years sector, as the vast majority of early years provision is outside of school.

Changing the ELGs will not address the workload issues as it only addresses an end goal change and does not look at how ongoing formative assessments are used in the settings, nor does it address how assessments are undertaken and moderated, leading to a raft of myths and misunderstandings about what is required, hence the comments about the need to reduce workload.  Similarly, it will not close the word gap, as it does not address the fundamental issue of how children learn to communicate and the rich and enabling environments and adult support and interaction that is needed from birth.

The new ELGs are certainly more challenging and are moving towards the need for a more formalised Reception Curriculum in order to prepare for Key Stage 1.  It looks very much as if a separation from the rest of the EYFS is the end goal in this, but there is a fundamental issue here as compulsory schooling does not start until the term after a child’s fifth birthday and many parents are now deferring starting age[2](an 84% increase between 2015 and 2017) as they can take advantage of the 30-hour funded offer in their child’s nursery. This is likely to become more attractive to parents of summer born children who can be disadvantaged from the start as they have had almost 1/5 less life experience than the September born children. Why would you want to remove them from a happy play-based environment to one where they may not be developmentally ready, leading to stress and anxiety for everyone? There is no evidence to suggest that staring formal education sooner has a positive impact on attainment – this is borne out by almost all other developed countries (commonwealth countries are the exception as they have mostly followed the UK lead) who start formal education much later than the UK.

The government says it remains committed to the Foundation Stage Profile and the new ELGs are a way of trying to align the curriculum to the way maths and phonics are taught in Year 1. The new ELGs, although not yet finalised, therefore represent a higher bar and will inevitably become the basis of the Reception Year curriculum with an increase in the requirement for children to recall information. This top down approach causes concern for many early years specialists who are committed to a more play-based approach which is widely believed would be of benefit to children in Year 1.[3]The concern is that the new ELGs will put teachers under pressure to narrow the rich and varied first hand experiences that children need in order to learn and develop.  These experiences help children develop their creativity and skills as they explore and grow to understand the world around them. They are the bedrock of social, cognitive and physical development and support the acquisition of positive attitudes to learning. Narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the goals will only serve to diminish these experiences and feed the tick list and testing culture that gets in the way of real learning in our schools. This will seriously disadvantage the youngest children and those who are developmentally not ready for such challenging ‘targets’.

If we really want to make sure every child meets their potential we need to ensure we invest in targeted support for families, so they are confident in their role and fully capable of supporting their children. We need to prioritise the funds needed to deliver excellent early years education and care and make sure that we meet each end every child’s needs as they grow and develop in partnership with parents and carers. We need to trust that the early years play based approach is right for our children and be confident that it leads to confident capable children who are ready for more formal learning later, not take a top down approach that has no evidence that it will help and has the potential to cause stress and anxiety. It will be interesting to hear the results of the pilot and hope that the needs of children are very much central to any subsequent changes, as to formalise the Reception year curriculum by setting a raft of targets to get them ready for Key Stage 1 is as ludicrous as feeding children a set diet to get them to all grow at the same rate.  

[1]DfE, 2017 – Foundation stage profile results

[2]DfE, 2018 – Delayed school admissions for summer born pupils

[3]Early Excellence, (2017) The Hundred Review: What research tells us about effective pedagogic practice and children’s outcomes in the Reception year